Introduction

 

How does one define “Match of the century”? What are the criteria that fulfill a football match to become the “Match of the century”? In my opinion, it is never easy to point out one particular match as the “Match of the century” because, in the history of football, the number of entertaining, nail-biter, and heart-stopping encounters is many. Still, there remain some matches, which claim a special place in the memories of critics and fans and continue to echo still today. Whenever the topic of “Match of the century” arises in a conversation, a fan tends to cite those matches, which created plenty of noise around the globe.

In 2007, a famous website named WorldSoccer.com published a list of greatest football matches of all time. It is hard to argue about those 20 matches, but the greatest matches continued to show up even after 2007.

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The hangover of – Liverpool’s epic comeback against Barcelona in the Champions League at Anfield in 2019, Lucas Moura’s freakish goals to stun Ajax in the same event, Cristiano Ronaldo’s marvelous hat-trick against Spain in World Cup 2018, Belgium stunning Brazil at Kazan in 2018, Jose Mourinho’s Inter taming Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka in the Champions League 2010, Holland thrashing defending champions Spain in World Cup 2014, Germany shaming Brazil in the same event or Uruguay and Ghana dishing out a match of a lifetime at Soccer City in 2010 – is still not over.

But among all these classic encounters, one match is still considered as one of the best in the history for the fans of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

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The European Champions of 1968, Italy and one of the best sides in the world, former West Germany, scripted something special at Mexico City in the semifinals of World Cup 1970, which not only topped the list of WorldSoccer.com, but for any critics, it would always remain as the best football match ever played on this planet.

Until Italy and Germany logged horns in the sun and shadow of Mexico, the match at Wembley between Hungary and England in 1953 along with Uruguay and Brazil in 1950 and West Germany and Hungary in 1954 remained the most enthralling affairs ever. But on that dramatic afternoon at Mexico City, Italy and Germany would change the equations forever!

The great Azteca – witnessed an epic

Gary Thacker wrote, “There’s a certain type of wisdom that only comes with age and the experience of seeing many things; by observing quietly and absorbing; by understanding. Sitting in the suburb of Santa Úrsula in Mexico City, the Estadio Azteca is not only an imposing architectural edifice, but it can also boast a rich history of hosting some of the most celebrated matches in the history of international football”.

“Being the first venue to host two World Cup finals, it’s fair to say that the old stadium has witnessed a fair bit chuck the game, with some of the rarest of talents ever to grace the international arena treading its turf. When the Azteca speaks of greatness, therefore, it’s done with the authority of age and experience. It’s beholding on us all to listen”.

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“Outside of the Azteca stands a monument, complete with a plaque. It commemorates what it describes as ‘Partido del Siglo’ (Game of the Century). This is the stadium where Pelé and his bright yellow-shirted teammates dazzled and defeated Italy to win their third World Cup with goals from Jairvinho, Gérson, Carlos Alberto, and O Rei himself. It was a game where ‘Ginga’ re-established itself as the reigning paradigm of the highest aspirations of the game. The plaque, however, speaks not of that game, but one played a few days before that Sunday showdown on 21 June 1970”.

“The text reads: ‘The Azteca Stadium pays homage to the national teams of Italy and Germany, who starred in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, the ‘Game of the Century’ June 17 1970’”.

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“To some, such homage to what was, after all, a mere prequel to the big event may seem somewhat perverse, especially when the final itself was a thrilling encounter that saw the soul of football reclaimed for the beautiful game. For many others who can recall the events of 17 June 1970, however, it’s not too difficult to understand how a game that for 90 minutes appeared to be heading for a 1-0 result as the Azzurri catenaccio sought to stifle play, jealously guarding a single goal advantage, justified such acclaim. It was the events of the time following the 90th minute; however, that justified the soubriquet ‘Partita del Secolo’ in Italian or ‘Jahrhundertspiel’ in German”.

The Italian renaissance

At Middlesbrough, on July 19, 1966, North Korea’s Pak Doo-ik scored the goal, which put Italian football at shame. Italy’s football suffered a lot since the end of World War II, but in those years of struggle, Italy had built their own style of play to make a comeback on the stage, which, once upon a time, belonged to them.

Before the Second World War broke out, they were the undisputed champions of Greatest Show on Earth, but it took a telling blow in the coming years. The glory days were gone and tragedies halted the progress. And, that defeat against North Korea left Italian football in tatters.

The task of putting the Azzurri back among the elite was entrusted to Ferruccio Valcareggi.  Valcareggi had been joint-manager with legendary Inter boss Helenio Herrera after Edmondo Fabbri’s sacking in 1966, but by ’67 he occupied the manager’s chair by himself.

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Catenaccio – a tactical system in football with a strong emphasis on defence would dominate Italian football. In Italy, catenaccio means “door-bolt”, which implies a highly organized and effective backline defence focused on nullifying opponents’ attacks and preventing goal-scoring opportunities.

Italy would regroup themselves in Euro 1968, which was held in Italy. In those days 4 teams played on a knockout basis and qualified for the finals. Italy’s progress was decided by a coin toss.

In the match against the mighty Soviet Union, after a goalless ending in extra-time,   players from both sides are exchanging handshakes. Their legs are heavy and their jerseys are soaked but the level of respect and gamesmanship between them was immense. Kurt Tschenscher instructed both teams’ captains into his dressing room for what would separate the two once and for all: a coin toss.

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Italy won by virtue of coin toss and faced Yugoslavia in the finals, which at first hand, ended 1-1 and then in the re-match, Italy won at Rome.

Tie-breakers were still not in action.

That victory boosted Italian confidence a lot and since then Italian football never remained the same.

The Euro Championship of 1968 helped Italy to rejuvenate their lost confidence, which would help to overcome the much-famed German mental strength in the semifinal of World Cup 1970.

Germany, the favourites

The Germans were regarded as the Goliaths. Man to man they were studded with match-winners and in Gerd Muller, they discovered a goal machine, who scored goals at will and in critical situations. England experienced how Muller dethroned them in Leon, while Morocco, Bulgaria, and Peru were left reeling by the power football of Franz Beckenbauer aka Kaiser, Uwe Seeler, Grabowski, Karl Heinz Schnellinger Overath and Muller.

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Germany’s attacking intent and fighting spirit would test Italy’s catenaccio, but when someone like Gigi Riva, Mazzola, and Rivera are around, the German backline can’t just relax.

The match begins – Italy take a surprise lead

At the start of the game, stifled by the high stakes and the oppressive heat of Mexico, both sides kept it tight. The spectators were also unusually subdued, and even the ball seemed lifeless, prompting Sepp Maier to ask for it to be changed early on.

But it was a pseudo-rhythm!

Roberto Boninsegna celebrates after scoring the opener. Image Courtesy: forza27.com
Roberto Boninsegna celebrates after scoring the opener. Image Courtesy: forza27.com

Italy used it to their advantage and thus springing a surprise on the Germans.

In the eighth minute, Roberto Boninsegna exchanged a defence-splitting one-two with Luigi Riva before dispatching an unstoppable half-volley from 16 meters out which left Sepp Maier rooted to the spot.

Italy 1 West Germany 0!

The classic was unfolding gradually!

Germany fightback

The Germans responded immediately, with the main threat coming from center-back plus libero Beckenbauer, first with a pass into space which Muller just failed to reach, then a 40-yard burst of acceleration before he was stopped in his tracks by a questionable challenge from another one of the best defender of all-times Giacinto Facchetti, the Italian skipper.

The Germans were dominating and dictating the match, but it was hard for them to breach the Italian wall.

The tireless German skipper, Seeler was taking part in his fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup, and it was the Hamburg striker’s ability to get his head to almost every free kick that constituted the main threat to the Italians in the opening half-hour.

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Slowly but steadily, his partner Muller was making his presence felt in the match.

First, he just failed to control a curling-cross from the Overath, allowing Mario Bertini to come out and claim. His 20-yard half-volley on the turn just two minutes later then drew the Fiorentina keeper into a smart save.

Bertini had been picked instead of Dino Zoff by Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi, much to the displeasure of the Friulian’s supporters, and he was soon called into action again, this time turning an even better-struck shot from Jürgen Grabowski round the post for a corner.

The second half – the Beckenbauer bravery

In the second half, the match started off in a crescendo-like-rhythm.

Seeler, put through cleverly by Beckenbauer, lost out in a one-on-one duel with Albertosi, and Grabowski was thwarted by the Florentine guardian on the hour mark. The Germans then failed to capitalize on an under-hit backpass from Bertini. Muller robbed Albertosi, Grabowski gathered and laid it back into the path of Overath, but his shot cannoned back off the crossbar with the Italian keeper stranded.

In the 67th minute, Beckenbauer charged forward only to be bundled over by Pierluigi Cera.

Surely a penalty!

But No!

Match referee, Arturo Yamakasi decided the foul had been committed outside the box. As the furious Germans crowded around the referee, Beckenbauer stayed down, his right shoulder pulled out of joint, and since the Germans had already made their two substitutions, Kaiser had to stay on the field.

Kaiser playing with an injured shoulder. Image Courtesy: Footy Fair
Kaiser playing with an injured shoulder. Image Courtesy: Footy Fair

Kaiser played the match with a dislocated shoulder with his arm and shoulder supported a sling.

It was one of the iconic images in the history of the World Cup, where Kaiser was seen defending and orchestrating attacks defying such a bad injury.

Tension mounted with each passing second, Siegfried Held walloped a volley past Albertosi only to see Roberto Rosato acrobatically clear off the line.

Seeler and then Muller fluffed chances in quick succession.

Germany equalize!

The clock ticked on!

Just a few more minutes and Italy would be through to the finals.

 Schnellinger equalizes for Germany. Image Courtesy: Planet World Cup
Schnellinger equalizes for Germany. Image Courtesy: Planet World Cup

But just as they had shown against England in the quarterfinals, Germany just did not know when they were beaten: in injury time, after two further close calls in the Italian goalmouth, the hard-working Grabowski swung in a cross from the left which was met by defender Karl Heinz Schnellinger at the penalty spot.

Albertosi was beaten all ends up and the Italians held their heads in disbelief.

The match went to extra-time!

The greatest 30 minutes of all-time

Beckenbauer set the tone by taking the field with his arm in a sling – which did nothing to stop him from tearing towards goal whenever he got the ball.

Helmut Schoen’s men now had the bit between their teeth.

Muller intercepted a Poletti back pass and poked the ball home just before Albertosi could grab it.

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The fans packed into the Aztec stadium were in raptures.

Italy 1 West Germany 2!

The German joy was short-lived!

With just 9 minutes into extra-time, Gianni Rivera sent over a free-kick which was cleared by Held to an advancing Tarcisio Burgnich, who beat Maier easily from the 6-yard box.

Italy 2 West Germany 2!

Riva makes it 2-2. Image Courtesy: Outlook India
Riva makes it 2-2. Image Courtesy: Outlook India

Just before the teams changed ends, Italy went one better when Angelo Domenghini crossed from the left for the inevitable Luigi Riva to run on and score prompting Italian commentator Nando Martellini’s famous celebration: “Riva, Riva, Riiiivvvaaaa!”

It was Gigi’s 22nd goal in just 21 outings for his country.

Ital 3 West Germany 2!

There was no let-up in the action in the second period of extra-time either.

The pace of the game was furious with both sides looking capable of scoring each time they went forward.

Germany soon hit back when another Seeler header was pounced on by the ever-opportunistic Muller, who once again steered it home.

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110 minutes gone – Muller hit his tenth goal of the tournament!

Italy 3 West Germany 3!

Rivera, standing at the far post held his head in disbelief.

Almost immediately from the restart, Boninsegna reached the byline on the left and knocked the ball back for Rivera, who had only come on after 60 minutes, had shown that he could indeed partner Riva upfront, as the Tifosi had been demanding since the tournament began.

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111th had minute gone!

Italy 4 West Germany 3!

The game had now reached a fever pitch. After two grueling hours of football under the Mexican sun, the two exhausted teams finished the game almost in slow motion. The Italians, past masters at killing time, stayed down after every tackle, fired the ball high into the stands, and contested every decision the referee made.

The referee blew the final whistle and Italy were in the finals after 32 years.

Catenaccio overcame the Goliath threat.

Conclusion

At the final whistle, the players fell into each other’s arms and then to the ground in exhaustion. By now it no longer seemed to matter who had won and who had lost.

Both teams enriched football and they realized it.

After the match, Seeler again accentuated the positive: “If we had to play in the final against Brazil after our extra-time games against England and Italy, we would lose by five. This way, we get to go home as the happy heroes in defeat.”

They were admired by the 100, 000 people present at Azteca.

They were admired by the global television audience.

Still today, the warriors of “Match of the Century” are admired!

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